American Medical Biographies/Agnew, David Hayes

Agnew, David Hayes (1818–1892)

D. Hayes Agnew, born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, November 24, 1818, was the son of Dr. Robert Agnew and of Agnes Noble, a woman of extraordinary strength of character. On both his mother's and father's side he was of Scotch-Irish descent. He studied at the Moscow Academy, Chester County, at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, and at Delaware College, Newark, Delaware, and entered the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1835, where he graduated in 1838.

Upon graduation he practised near Nobleville, Chester County, until 1843, when he joined his wife's brothers in establishing the firm of Irwin and Agnew, iron-founders, continuing the business left by his father-in-law. In 1846 the firm failed, and Dr. Agnew resumed practice in Chester and Lancaster counties.

In 1848 he removed to Philadelphia for the purpose of devoting himself specially to the study and teaching of anatomy and surgery, and in 1852 became connected with the Philadelphia School of Anatomy, where for ten years he gave instruction. He was exceedingly popular as a lecturer and an eminently practical teacher, being remarkable for his simple, plain, straightforward methods, his entire disregard of oratorical effort and his faculty of making clear and easily comprehensible even the abstruse portions of his subject. When he took charge of the class it first numbered only nine students, but rose to two hundred and fifty, and would have been larger but for lack of accommodation. Agnew at this period was an indefatigable worker. He dissected for a time from "twelve to eighteen hours a day" (Adams). He gave as many as one hundred and eighty lectures during the year in his various courses including that on operative surgery. During a period when it was difficult to get anatomical material at the time of the cholera epidemic in 1854, Agnew went into the pit designed for the bodies of those dead of cholera, and injected bodies, which were then transferred to his dissecting rooms. One of his customs was to put subjects into a pond full of eels and these did their work very thoroughly. Unfortunately the man who had the reputation of selling the best eels in town secretly got them from this pond. The result, when by accident he learned how his eels were nourished, brought out rather a bad reputation for Agnew.

In 1854 he was elected a surgeon to the Philadelphia Hospital, where he established a pathological museum. He organized the Philadelphia School of Operative Surgery in 1863.

During the Civil War he performed many operations on wounded soldiers brought to the Hestonville and Mowry Army Hospital at Chestnut Hill, where Dr. Agnew and Thomas G. Morton alternated as consulting surgeon.

He married November 21, 1841, Margaret Creighton, daughter of Samuel Irwin, of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Agnew had gone to Philadelphia without great medical or surgical experience, but by his own energy and self-reliance was able to acquire great popularity as a teacher owing to the clearness of his teaching, the soundness of his judgment, the skill of his operations, and the character of his writings. He was a quick but a precise operator and his use of instruments was light and graceful though devoid of flourishes and he was ambidextrous. Though not to be classed as an original surgeon he had introduced a new operation for webbed fingers and modified the musculocutaneous flap method in amputation.

In the course of his work Dr. Agnew devised many instruments, among them being an anterior angular splint with the posterior angular trough, an instrument for compressing wounded intercostal vessels, a splint for fracture of the patella and a stone-forceps for use in lithotomy in children. His capacity for continuous hard professional work was very great and his equanimity was seldom ruffled. He possessed a judicial temperament and had the talent of separating the essential from the immaterial. He was a sound and a safe surgeon.

He was the chief operator in attendance on President Garfield after his assassination. As a consultant and as a practitioner Dr. Agnew's most noteworthy quality was the soundness of his judgment. His physical strength and endurance were extraordinary and it was not until 1889 that he had a serious breakdown when he was confined to his bed with influenza.

His last illness was in 1892 when he died, in Philadelphia, on the twenty-second of March of angina pectoris.

Among his appointments he became demonstrator of anatomy and assistant professor of clinical surgery in the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected surgeon to the Wills' Eye Hospital; in 1864, surgeon to the Pennsylvania, and in 1867, surgeon to the Orthopedic Hospital; in 1870, professor of clinical surgery in the University of Pennsylvania; 1871, of the principles and practice of surgery; 1889, emeritus professor of surgery and honorary professor of clinical surgery. In 1884 he resigned the position of attending surgeon to the Pennsylvania Hospital and became consulting surgeon, and in 1890 was elected president of the College of Physicians.

Dr. Agnew first made his name as an author through his introductory lectures, and his "Classification of the Animal Kingdom," 1861, is considered a better work even than that of Baron Larrey.

"Practical Anatomy," a new arrangement of the "London Dissector" with numerous modifications and additions, containing a concise description of the muscles, blood-vessels, nerves, viscera, and ligaments of the human body as they appear on dissection, with illustrations, appeared in 1856.

His best known work was: "The Principles and Practice of Surgery," being a treatise on surgical diseases and injuries. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1878–83.

Other works were: "General Principles of Surgical Diagnosis." In "International Encyclopedia of Surgery" (Ashhurst), New York, 1881, i. The same: "Principes généraux de diagnostic chirurgical." In "Encylopédie international de chirurgie" (Ashhurst), Paris, 1883, ii. The same: "Kwaika sinron. The principles and practice of surgery," being a treatise of surgical diseases and injuries. Translated by M. Toyabe. 2 vol. Tokio, 1889. Memoir of John Light Atlee; read before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, February 3, 1886. With portrait. Philadelphia, 1886. Reprinted from "Transactions of College of Physicians," Philadelphia, 1886, 3 s., viii.

History of the Life of D. Hayes Agnew, J. H. Adams, Philadelphia and London, 1892.
Hayes Agnew, Biographical Sketch, F. D. Willard, Philadelphia. 1892.
Internat. Clin., Phila., 1892, 2 s., vol. ii.
Tr. Amer. Sur. Asso., J. Ashhurst, Jr., Phila., 1892, vol. x.
Internat. Med. Mag., Phila., 1892, vol. i. No. 4.
Med. News, Phila., 1892, vol. lx.
New. Eng. Med. Month., Sandyhook, 1884–5, vol. iv.
Tr. Coll. Phys. Phila., J. W. White, 1895. 3 s., vol. xv.
Univ. Med. Mag., J. W. White, Phila., 1892–3, vol. v. Portrait.